A Stereoscopist In Perigord

A Stereoscopist In Perigord

Over 635 kilometres (395 miles) separate Dury-les-Amiens, Somme, France, from Tocane Saint-Apre, Dordogne, same country. The two small towns are not twinned yet they have something in common. Both were photographed on wet collodion plates and for the stereoscope, some time in the 1860s.

I have written twice about the stereoscopic images of Dury for Stereoscopy.blog [1] and I am now about to tell you what I have found regarding some stereos of Tocane Saint-Apre and its area.

In both instances my interest was sparked by stereo negatives which I found on the internet and bought, in complete opposition with my banker’s entreaties.

I bought seven negatives out of the nine I knew existed for Dury (the seller chose to keep two, that was his prerogative) and I purchased all of the nine on offer for Tocane because I could not stand considering they could be separated.

For Dury, what made me throw financial caution to the wind was that I was confident I could research the images and find something to write about them. I had no idea where it would lead me nor how much money it would cost me eventually but as Edith Piaf would have sung in that amazing voice of hers, “Non, rien de rien, non, je ne regrette rien !” (I regret  nothing). The search, the knowledge I gained in the process, the lovely people I met, and the finds were worth every penny.

For Tocane what made me buy the negatives without thinking more than fleetingly about the financial consequences was that they were the first examples of stereoscopic transposed collodion negatives I had seen for sale. I had come across examples in archives and had scanned over a hundred of them at a particularly famous British library (no, not that one), but I had never found a single sample for my “collection”. I have deliberately put the word collection between quotes because I do not consider myself a collector. I am a photo historian and in the course of my research I often find it more convenient to buy original pieces than to deal with reproduction rights. Experience has proved that it is usually much cheaper that way and far more exciting too because I do not have to deal with copies but can experience the real thing. It is also an investment because when I am tired of researching them (if ever) I can sell them to someone else. At least that’s what I keep repeating myself as an excuse. Need I say that, so far, I have not parted with any of those documents ?

Since this article is mostly about negatives, a couple of points must be made clear about stereoscopic collodion plates. When negatives are taken with a binocular camera equipped with two lenses, generally separated by just over the average interpupillar distance (65 mm), the stereoscopic pair cannot be viewed directly in a stereoscope before the left and right are transposed (right goes left and left goes right). This is due to the fact that in a non-digital camera the image is printed on the sensitive material, whether a metal plate, a glass one or a film, upside down. When you put it the right way up the stereo half captured by the left lens is on the right and vice-versa.

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Illustration 01 – What happens when a photo is taken with a binocular camera. The top image shows the plate as it is exposed in the binocular camera. Underneath is the negative as it appears once developed (I have turned into it a positive to make it more readable). The bottom part of the picture shows the stereoscopic pair once it has been transposed, cropped and trimmed.

There are some occasions, though, when the stereoscopic pair is already transposed on the negative and can be viewed straight away in a stereoscope. In order for this to be possible the two halves have to be taken sequentially (one after the other), using the Latimer Clark System or Principle.

Named after its inventor, electrical engineer Joshua Latimer Clark (1822-1898), and first presented in London on May 5th 1853 at the fourth ordinary meeting of the Photographic Society [2], the Latimer Clark principle allows photographers to take the two sequential images necessary for the obtention of a stereoscopic image on the same plate and to transpose them while they are being made. It involves shifting the single camera from left to right but also moving the plate holder the same way. It may sound complicated but once you get the hang of it it is actually very simple and quite fast. The Latimer Clark Principle had lots of advantages as it enabled the artist to check the stereoscopic effect of their composition immediately and to print the two halves of the stereoscopic pair without having to remember to transpose the resulting positive images.

The downside is that the system is not very good for “instantaneity”. A good case in point are the illustrations below which feature one of the images I bought. They show the actual negative and the positive made from it one above the other. As you can easily see if you have a stereoscopic viewer at hand both images are transposed and visible in their three dimensions at once. However, a lot has happened between the two exposures and most people, especially on the left of the image, have moved, resulting in some visual confusion. The lady on the extreme left has carried on sweeping the pavement before her shop or house, a man has briefly appeared in the foreground during one of the shots and has left to attend to his business, leaving the trace of two faces. The girl on the right, although her body has not moved much, also seems to have two heads. No more than four of the several figures present in the picture have obeyed the artist’s injunctions and have barely budged an inch. The prize for the most immobile sitter goes to the young boy in the middle, the one holding what could be an apron he has hastily taken off, or a piece of cloth. Some of the other children present have moved their hands or their head, one has stepped to the left. The street, the sign which reads “Débit de Tabac” on the right and the bunting, however, have kept completely still and can be seen in perfect 3-D. I love this image because it is a wonderful example of the upsides and downsides of the Latimer Clark Principle. It is no surprise it was the first I bought, before convincing myself I could not let the other ones go. Since I am showing one of the negatives it may interest the reader to know that all nine are about 171 mm wide, 81 mm high and 4 mm thick (which is thicker than most glass plates I have handled) and that the edges of the plates have been ground so as to make them smooth and safe. It may also be important to mention that, unlike most collodion stereo negatives I have come across, these have not been varnished, which explain why there are so many scratches in them, the emulsion having been left totally unprotected for the past one hundred and sixty years.

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Illustration 02 – Stereoscopic negative taken with the Latimer Clark Principle. The left and right halves of the image have been transposed while the two sequential photographs were taken.

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Illustration 03 – Positive made from the negative above.

When there is only one sitter, or even several, and they understand what’s expected of them, the Latimer Clark Principle works wonders. You would not know the portrait and group portrait below were taken with the Latimer Clark System if you did not see that the negative images and/or their positive counterparts are already transposed. Since the Latimer Clark Principle is the only way this can happen (unless we are looking at a plate which was re-photographed from the original negatives after they had been transposed, which is not the case here) we know how the photographer operated and that he only had a single camera which was shifted to one side between exposures.

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Illustration 04 – Stereoscopic negative. Portrait of a young lady made with the Latimer Clark System.

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Illustration 05 – Stereoscopic negative. Group portrait made in the same conditions. Nobody has moved.

Now that I have made clear (I hope) how these images were taken, what can they tell us about where, when and by whom they were made ? The Where question is actually quite easy to answer, at least for one of the images. The man in the group portrait above is reading a local newspaper the title of which, Le Périgord, is perfectly legible. We could argue that this reader could be anywhere in France and could keep in touch with what was going on in his native neck of the woods  by subscribing to said paper and have it posted to his address. We will waive that aside, if you don’t mind, and look for other pieces of evidence that might point to the Périgord as the location of these photographs. It took me about five minutes to find out that the church in the image below is the one which still stands in the centre of the Dordogne village of Tocane Saint-Apre. I kept in mind that the photos might have been made in Périgord and using Google asked to see images of churches in Périgord built in white stones. Among the numerous results was a splendid colour photo of that same church and its location. So far so good.

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Illustration 06 – Stereoscopic negative showing the church of Tocane Saint-Apre just after completion.

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Illustration 07 – Postcard from the 1910s showing the church from a different angle.

Tocane Saint-Apre, by the way, is located in Dordogne (which is part of Périgord), 13 kilometres east of Ribérac, and 20 kilometres West-North-West of Périgueux. The village was made up of two smaller neighbouring places, Tocane and Saint-Apre, which were combined into a single unit in 1852. The “fusion” of the two villages was not a painless process and the newly built church bears witness to this. There are two doors in the main entrance. The left hand side one was reserved to the inhabitants of Tocane the right hand side one to those of Saint-Apre ! They also sat on separate sides of the central aisle !!

Another Google search revealed that Notre-Dame de la Nativité, the church in the illustration, was erected between 1857 and 1861 by architect Auguste Louis Edouard Bouillon (1805-1863) and his son. Since it looks nearly completed in the stereo above (the ceramic that now decorates the top of the entrance porch would not be installed until 1872) the photo must have been taken closer to 1861 than to 1857. The church was completed and officially “delivered” on August 12th 1861 before being consecrated by Bishop Nicolas Joseph Dabert (1811-1901) nearly three years later, on July 19th, 1864.

I had hoped that all the negatives I bought were taken in Tocane Saint-Apre but local historian Françoise Aristizabal, whom I got in touch with as soon as I found out about the church, tells me that the houses in illustration 3 above and illustration 8 below do not match any that can or could be found in Tocane Saint-Apre. She should know since she has just published a remarkable book on the history of the village [3].

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Illustration 08 – Another stereoscopic negative from the same lot showing the main street of a yet unidentified village on what appears to be a very special occasion..

Research on hundreds postcards found online has, so far, failed to reveal where illustrations 3 and 8 may have been taken but it seems clear from the buildings that they were also captured in Périgord. The two images may have been taken in Mussidan, a larger village further to the south, but I am not a hundred percent sure as a lot of the buildings in the images are partially obstructed by the decorations.

Now that we have some indication as to the When and the Where (the Whereabout, at least), what about the Who ?

This, I am afraid, is the trickiest part. I have had a look at the list of photographers operating in Dordogne in the nineteenth century and more particularly at those who had studios in Périgueux and Ribérac, which are the closest to Tocane-Saint-Apre, but not a single name flagged up and none seems to have advertised taking stereoscopic pictures. Not a promising start.

One of the stereoscopic negatives bear the initials V. D. scratched on the left half. They may refer to the photographer but then why would they appear on one negative only ?

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Illustration 09 – Stereo negative. In this image the initials V. D. can clearly be seen at the bottom of the glass plate.

One person in the list of photographic artists I found has their name beginning with a D, and that is one Durieux, a photographer from Mussidan. Mussidan is just over 30 kilometres away from Tocane. It is, therefore, not impossible that the elusive Durieux, about whom I could not find any information, not even a first name, travelled to Tocane Saint-Apre.

What we do know for certain is that the person who took these pictures was, at some point in their career, an itinerant photographer. How can we be certain of this ? Simply by looking at the portrait and group portrait shown in illustrations 4 and 5. The young woman in illustration 4 is sitting in front of a backdrop made up of large whitish piece of fabric over which some darker material has been arranged to look like curtains. Lots of photographic studios of the time had similar backgrounds but the persons having their portraits made were usually sitting or standing on a carpet not on grass and stones as this lady is. The photograph was undoubtedly taken outside, as was the group portrait. There is no grass in the latter, just soil, but the whitish backdrop looks the same. Chances are our artist had a photographic van in which they could carry enough props to whip up a makeshift studio and would double as a darkroom where the collodion plates could be sensitised prior to being inserted in the camera then immediately developed once the image had been captured. Nobody ever said taking photographs with the collodion process was easy !

It was not uncommon in those days to have travelling photographers advertising in the local press they would be spending a week or more in one place before moving on to another. This allowed people outside cities to have their portraits or photographs of their properties taken. Although there are quite a few photographs and postcards featuring those itinerant photographers it is not very common to have stereos showing them. The image below, staged by stereo photographer Hippolyte Jouvin (1825-1889) and copyrighted on March 21st 1864, is one of the few I know of.

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Illustration 10 – Hippolyte Jouvin. Staged scene showing an itinerant photographer taking the portrait of a young woman.

Lots of famous photographers started their careers “on the road” before settling in one place and opening a proper studio. We also know of several stereoscopic photographers who travelled all over France in their photographic vans, taking dozens, sometimes hundreds of stereo images on their way. One famous example is the pair Charles Furne and Henri Tournier who, from 1857 to 1861 took thousands of stereos of Brittany, Provence and Languedoc, the Pyrenees, etc. Frédéric Viret and Alphonse Frédéric Fraget did the same in the centre of France, while Jean Andrieu photographed all of France’s main harbours. There were several others who have yet to be studied and written about.

Another negative seems to have been taken in the same village as the one bearing the initials. It is a fascinating image since it shows dozens of large stone blocks lining one of the streets of the yet unidentified location and others scattered in a field on the right hand side. We are probably not far from a stone quarry which could be located in Dordogne or in nearby Charente. There are some markings on some of the stones. I contacted several local quarries to see if I could find any information about those but since my interest was historical and I had no intention of buying any stones, my queries remained unanswered.

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Illustration 11 – Stereo negative. Large stone blocks lining the sides of a village street and lying in a nearby field.

Nine negatives are not enough to determine whether our still unidentified photographer travelled extensively or limited his photographic excursions to Périgord but it is a start and more may turn up that will enable us to get a more accurate picture of the artist and of his work

I would have loved to have concluded this article by revealing the name of the author of these collodion negatives but this will have to wait for another time. My hope is that this article will make other images surface in which there will be more clues as to the identity of the artist and to the places he travelled to. Some people wait until they have every single piece of information before they publish something. I have known too many who have died before they were satisfied they had enough data to write about their pet subject. My philosophy is therefore to publish what I know, even if it is incomplete, because it is the best way to stake one’s claim and to unearth new evidence. It has worked before and I sincerely hope it will this time.


[1] “Henry Brothers: Masters of their trade” (Part 1): https://stereoscopy.blog/2021/05/29/henry-brothers-masters-of-their-trade/

“Henry Brothers: Masters of their trade” (Part 2): https://stereoscopy.blog/2022/06/21/henry-brothers-masters-of-their-trade-part-two

[2] Back in 1853, what is now the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) was only called the Photographic Society. Charles Wheaststone, the inventor of the stereoscope, was one of its vice-presidents. The Latimer Clark System was presented to the members of the society on May 5th and to the general public in the the fifth issue of the Journal of the Photographic Society, published on May 21st 1853, less than three weeks after Latimer Clark read his paper before the society. The article is entitled “An Arrangement for taking Stereoscopic Pictures with a single Camera”.

[3] Françoise Aristizabal, Eric Belle et Jean-Luc Doat, Tocane Saint-Apre, Un village en Périgord, 1852-2000. Éditions Les Livres de l’Îlot, 2022.

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